If there is anywhere left for Torontonians to find patches of bucolic, fertile farmland close to the city, it’s 50 kilometres or so east in Pickering.
On a summer day, fields carpeted in hues of green spread from undulating back roads. Descend a little hill or corner a gentle bend, and a farmhouse can be found nestled in each fresh vista.
Yet 18,600 acres of this area, acquired by the federal government in 1972, remains at the centre of a debate as vociferous as the land is calm, with Ottawa’s recurring plan to build a major airport in Pickering.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s announcement in June renewed a plan to develop an airport – a plan which has been in limbo for four decades. For a strong community of activists and local residents, the arguments against an airport are the same as they were in the seventies, with the added emphasis this time on protecting the area’s rich soil for farmland to feed Toronto. Yet, there are also plans to develop parts of the land for businesses, bringing further uncertainty, say activists.
The latest newsletter this week from Land Over Landings, the group leading the opposition to the airport, is calling for volunteer teams to sell signs and buttons at public events and food markets. The group is advertising for a graphic designer to create posters and a fundraiser to help out, while a host of like-minded environmental and grassroots associations from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to the GTA Agricultural Action Committee have lent their support. The summer, the newsletter says, has been “a blur of activity.”
Born under the Trudeau government, the airport plans have been to build a second, large Toronto hub, initially a Toronto version of Montreal’s ambitious Mirabel airport – which is now widely considered a white elephant and used primarily for air cargo.
By 1975, the protest movement People or Planes had galvanized opposition so strongly that the Ontario government backed away, shuttering the proposal and leaving the airport plans in limbo for decades. Now, land advocates and activists are gathering again in force – but this time, the focus is a little different. When People or Planes garnered widespread attention for its cause, people at that time had been expropriated from the land acquired by the federal government. Families were being moved, their lives uprooted. That’s less the case now.
“We understood two things,” said Pickering resident and organizer Mary Delaney about the new iteration of the movement. “One: It wasn’t so much about people anymore, so People or Planes wasn’t really the point. It’s about land. Because after 40 years, the communities had been destroyed.” Like others on the federally expropriated land, she doesn’t own her family’s home or the land.
Also different this time is that “just being opposed to an airport really wasn’t what we want to be about,” Ms. Delaney said. “We wanted to be for something. If you cancel an airport, and then you put houses and development and Wal-Marts and parking lots [there], it’s no different. You can’t grow food through a runway or a parking lot.”
The crux of Land Over Landings’ argument is that the area’s prime Class 1 soil, ideal for diverse crops, has been neglected and squandered in order to depopulate the land for a future airport. The land is vital and could be a valuable source of food for Toronto and the region. Land over Landings sees this as an urgent need. Mr. Flaherty, on the other hand, said he hopes to see the airport running by 2027.
The government has been leasing land to farmers on short-term contracts, which discourages agricultural businesses from investing in diverse crops, even though the area is so close to Toronto markets and restaurants. The land is being used mainly for nutrient-depleting cash crops, such as corn to make ethanol.
Similarly, Pat Valentine, vice-chair of Land Over Landings, has detailed in a series of photos the dilapidation of country houses due to years of neglect under the imposed rental system for properties.
“It all seems to be aimed at just getting people to say, ‘I’m fed up with this. I’m leaving,’” Ms. Valentine said. “Their lease contracts [say] that they can not make repairs or improvements to their properties. Some of them do anyway, because they love them, because they are heritage properties.”
As fellow activist Ms. Delaney, who lives on the lands, noted with a laugh, “Our lease says, ‘To Her Majesty the Queen hereinafter referred to as the landlord.’ In fact, with our insurance, I believe she’s the beneficiary. It’s all really quite ludicrous.”